Nathans was born in Wilmington, Delaware, the last of nine children born to Russian Jewish immigrant parents, Sarah (Levitan) and Samuel Nathans. During the Great Depression his father lost his small business and was unemployed for a long period of time. Nathans went to public schools and then to the University of Delaware, where he studied chemistry, philosophy, and literature. He received a BS in Chemistry from the University of Delaware in 1950. He received his M.D. degree from Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri in 1954. After getting an M. D. degree in 1954, Nathan went to the Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center in New York(The university hospital of Columbia University) for an internship in medicine with Robert Loeb, a masterful clinician and medical scientist. Nathans served as President of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland from 1995 to 1996.